GameLab #1: Adaptation

Practicing English grammar tenses with Once Upon a Timeline.

My serious goal in this gamelab is to provide intermediate English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students with contextual practice switching between the present, past, and present perfect tenses. EFL students, who by definition study English outside of an English-speaking country, often struggle to understand when and how to use grammar concepts due to content being taught outside of a relevent context. The video game Once Upon a Timeline, in which the main character travels through time, provides a unique setting for EFL students to better understand and practice differentiating between these English grammar tenses.

Once Upon a Timeline:  It is the year 1954 and you are the nephew of a scientist. One day you arrive at her home to find her murdered and a time machine in the corner of the room. Your player objective is to use the time machine to piece together the story behind your aunt’s murder and alter the past/future to prevent it. There are, of course, environmental constraints. For example, there are no character options but the nephew. While the time machine can take you through a span of 150 years, from 2022 back to 1873, the physical location of the game always remains the coordinates of the house. The scene changes with time, but you are always limited to interacting with the objects and people found in that set location. Textual clues from dialogues and the aunt’s journal appear as the game advances.

The formal constraints are that the nephew wants to actively search for clues in order to prevent his aunt’s murder. This requires reading and comprehending information gathered from dialogues with non-player characters (NPC) as well as referencing and recording notes in the aunt’s journal. Although the game allows the player to skip text, the machine-based arbitration is such that one cannot advance dialogues or turn pages in the journal until certain steps have been completed, such as an encounter with a specific NPC or trading to acquire an object.

Adaptation:  Once Upon a Timeline has plenty of language input for EFL students, but what is missing is the chance to generate output. Making players responsible for conjugating the verbs in the journal notes, which the nephew is meant to have written himself, would require the player to form language based on previously read text. This changes the formal constraint of mechanics (actions or procedures), by requiring correct answers in order for the game to progress.journal-2

This adaptation fits the serious goal stated above in a few ways. First, Once Upon a Timeline is not a long game and can be completed in under an hour. This makes it a viable option for in class practice or self-study. Second, although it is a form of controlled practice, the frequent time travel in the plot-driven story provides a dynamic context for mixing multiple tenses that would be impossible for any worksheet or prompt to emulate. Third, while I worry somewhat that this adaptation may be too intrusive and interrupt the flow of the game, I also think that since answers must be formed based on previously read text, this would improve players’ reading comprehension and attention to detail. Furthermore, by limiting the answers to the journal notes, players take on a more active role as they add to the analysis of clues rather than passively reading the computer generated reflection.

Process:  As an EFL instructor I knew my serious goals would require the player to interact with language. The player would have to interact with text to advance the story. I also limited my search to online PC-based games that were free in order to broaden access to EFL instructors and students. I was briefly intrigued by a game called Raft, where the player, adrift in the ocean, could possibly be made to log journal entries. However, there was not enough direction as players could have very different goals. I settled on Once Upon a Timeline fairly quickly for its unique scenario to practice tenses which are always a challenge for EFL instructors to set up and EFL students to grasp.

MI 830 Foundations of Serious Games, Michigan State University


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